Harley-Davidson XR1200

Harley Davidson XR1200 Road Test

We look back at the bike that seemed to have it all – Harley’s XR1200…

Styling is a big thing with bikes and Harley-Davidson has had some notable successes over their more than 115 years in the bike-building business…

Think of the FX1200 Super Glide of the early 1970s, the classic lines of the Electra Glide, or the Fat Boy of the late 1980s and early 1990s, or even the liquid-cooled V-Rod of the early Noughties…

And while ‘sport success’ doesn’t always spring to mind with a Harley don’t forget Walter Villa on the H-D/Aermacchi machine – a four-time World Champion in the 1970s. Or even Harley’s abortive attempt at AMA success with the Porsche-designed liquid-cooled VR1000, which did get close to the odd win, using talent such as Scott Russell, Miguel DuHamel and Pascal Picotte…

But there was a place where Harley-Davidson was dominant for years – out there on the flat-tracks and it’s there where form met function perfectly for the XR1200…

Launched in 2008, it was a bike that should really have had it all: it had the styling from the ovals of the USA. Flat-track racing may not have been big in the UK or Europe, but some manufacturers had tried to emulate the looks of such bikes before: Honda’s FT500 Ascot for one.

But this was the real McCoy: it wasn’t a single, it was a 1202cc, air-cooled, push-rod, two-valve per pot V-twin. You had fuel-injection and five-speeds to push the not inconsiderable 250 kilos along.

Now, in the past especially in the 1990s and early Noughties, many of us could appreciate a sports bike, and some could appreciate a full-dress Harley. After all, riding an Electra-Glide on some A-roads with the CD-player blaring would give any bike rider a smile a mile wide: believe us – you should try it. Meanwhile, many of us loved howling around our favourite corners on bikes that could handle the curves. However, back then the Sportster range often left people feeling flat: even if the basic 883 versions would (in the 1990s) start at around just £5-£6000! And – with a chassis more suited to straight lines – the Sportster range never really caught on in a big way over here.

The XR1200 should have changed all that… launched to the press around Valencia, Spain, the assembled press were astonished to find this Harley HANDLED! At last, a ‘Sportster’ that could actually ‘Sport!’ Journalists soon were shuffling the pack of their ‘Top 5 Harleys ever’ and the XR was making an impact big-style.

At last, we didn’t have a huge, hulking lump of Milwaukee Americana suited to some big-ass, butt-less chapped Hog driver with a be-tatted missus on the back and beanie lid, instead it was a European-derived machine, with top-quality suspension and brakes, specifically suited for our penchant for sportsbikes and machines that can actually go around corners.

One of the things that made it special was that it was for Europe only – at least for the first year. With development riders such as Scott Parker and Adrien Morillas (former WSB winner) the hunger the XR1200 had for corners was immediate. Parker was (at the time) a nine-time AMA Flat-Track champ and some-time Tarmac racer, while Morillas was also a former Endurance racer. During the press briefings much was made of the ‘Europe only’ status for the first year: “You mean we don’t get this bike in the USA?” moaned Parker, during a well-rehearsed skit during the model presentation.

The styling of the bike was special: based on the legendary (and often peerless) XR750 flat-tracker – this was the bike that Parker took his titles on. In terms of out-right sporting success, the XR750 is up there with a Manx Norton or Honda’s NSR500.

The road-going XR1200 mimicked the 750 perfectly: the pull-back bars form into a muscle-bound hunched-at-the-front look which is a neat road interpretation of the XR750. All that was needed was a set of wire wheels and some number boards… So, how did it ride? Brilliantly… if truth be told…

Harley Davidson XR1200The fuel-injected motor was punchy and produced 90bhp – not a great deal even in 2008– but more than any Sportster before and the way the power came in was nice and linear, with the motor pulling from around 2500rpm to the 7000rpm redline. There was plenty of howl waiting to be unleashed from those twin, upswept pipes, too – but it was crying out for some ‘Screaming Eagle’ loud pipes.

Chassis-wise the bike was a peach. At 250 kilos this was no light-weight sportsbike, but this Hog hustled and was certainly no push-rod pushover in the curvy bits. It hid its weight well and a tweak of the wide, black flat-track bars would send you in the required direction with ease. The suspension worked well too: the 43mm Showa front forks didn’t dive too much under hard braking while the twin shocks were adjustable for preload only – and you did need to put some preload into the XR1200 if you wanted to hustle and not grind the thing out.

What about the brakes: well, these were Nissin calipers gripping 292mm discs at the front and they did the job very well indeed as they’d have to with a bike this bulky. Clocks were minimalist , but this is a race rep! The speedo was a digital affair scabbed like an afterthought on the side of the large tacho: just like it would be on a racer.

So it was everything it should be – but some of the quality control still left a little to be desired. With some rain at the launch, one of the bikes which sat outside already had a little bit of the old rust coming through on the pipe’s end cans which had a lip where water would collect. Also, as usual, some bolts and fixings just looked agricultural rather than aerospace quality and wiring routing looked like an after-thought. But then, this was based on an agricultural racing Harley. From an owning perspective, riding it day-to-day, you’d find the seating position caused discomfort before the (small) 13.3 litre tank would run dry at just over 110 miles and that you had to really look after it, to keep it pristine.

Back in the day, the price was a paltry £7655 on the road. Yes, this is pre-crash, pre-austerity prices, but it was still a bargain for a bike with the H-D logos on the tank. Coming in orange, black and silver, they all looked the business – as long as you didn’t look too hard. Either way, it was a shame that the bike was discontinued in 2012.

Today, if you bought one you’ve not lost much at all and in some cases you may have an investment on your hands. Lower-quality used bikes (often even with low miles on) sit around five grand, while a clean, well-looked after bike can go for as much as £8000: yup, above that first list price in 2008.